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'First In Line' profiles modern vice presidents from Nixon to Pence

Journalist Kate Brower interviewed all of the former living vice presidents among the 200 subjects she spoke to and her extensive reporting pays off.

First In Line By Kate Andersen Brower Harper 336 pp.
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During the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, vice president Al Gore maintained a close, brotherly partnership with his boss that only unraveled as the Monica Lewinsky scandal surfaced and as Gore suffered through his own failed bid to become president in 2000. Gore lost to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote — doomed by the debacle of “hanging chads” and, ultimately, the final verdict rendered by the Supreme Court.

In hindsight, some analysts condemned Gore for distancing himself from Clinton during the 2000 campaign. The two men grew estranged over the Lewinsky scandal, so much so that Gore used Clinton sparingly in their respective home states of Tennessee and Arkansas. Gore wound up losing both.

Sixteen years later, another politician with very close ties to Bill Clinton, former First Lady Hillary Clinton, felt Gore’s pain. In Clinton’s case, she attracted 3 million more votes, but, like Gore, lost the electoral college in a stunning upset by Donald Trump.

Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are both Democrats, both spent eight years as part of Bill Clinton’s administration and, as Kate Andersen Brower chronicles in her latest book, First In Line, both spent extensive time trying to outmaneuver one another for power and influence during Bill Clinton’s White House years.

Or, as a Gore aide put it, “Of course they don’t like each other, because they are each other. They’re exactly the same person: wooden on the stump; come off as cold and phony and preachy; nobody likes them because they’re the smartest kid in the class. But in fact they were also both very organized, linear, conscientious thinkers.”

Brower is quickly becoming a brand-name Washington writer because of her ability to deliver juicy tidbits and insider information while steering her books toward a mainstream audience without sacrificing historical credibility. Her first two books, looking at the inner workings of the White House from the staff’s perspective and telling the story of First Ladies spanning Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, became best-sellers.

Now comes “First In Line,” examining the 13 modern vice presidents from Richard Nixon to Mike Pence. The inevitable frustration and resentment of the job described as being one heartbeat away from the presidency are on full display in Brower’s book, but, so, too, are the post-Mondale vice presidencies that have tended to be much more collaborative, though not without rivalry.

Brower interviewed all of the former living vice presidents among the 200 subjects she spoke to and her extensive reporting pays off throughout.

She relates a number of stories that have either been previously unknown or overlooked. Going back to Clinton-Gore, she tells of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton using an intermediary in 1991 to tell Gore, a US Senator from Tennessee who sought the Democratic nomination in 1988, that Clinton wouldn’t enter the 1992 campaign if Gore planned to run again.

“First In Line” includes basic facts about the vice presidency a lot of Americans may not know (or at least many this reader didn’t know). A prime example: VPs and their spouses have six months of Secret Service protection after leaving office. Presidents and First Ladies, of course, receive lifetime protection.

In 1967, the required three-fourths majority of states ratified Congress’s 25th Amendment, clearly defining presidential and vice-presidential succession. John F. Kennedy’s assassination prompted the amendment because of uncertainty over succession in the Constitution. (Prior to the amendment, vice presidential vacancies went unfilled until the next election, as happened with Lyndon Johnson when he became president after JFK’s death in 1963.)

Brower reveals an interesting series of events during George W. Bush’s administration, when Dick Cheney worried the amendment still had some holes.

Cheney’s concern stemmed from a lack of clarity within the 25th Amendment about removing a vice president. And, as Brower writes, Cheney and his deputy, David Addington, also were troubled by the amendment requiring the vice president’s involvement to replace an incapacitated president.

Cheney and Addington wanted to ensure the president could remove Cheney if needed so that the country could not fall into the position of later having both an incapacitated president and vice president and no way to select a replacement.

What motivated Cheney was his health history. By 2001, when Cheney began posing his questions, he had already survived four heart attacks since age 37. Cheney and Addington solved their problem with Cheney writing a resignation letter to President Bush in March 2001.

Addington was entrusted with keeping the resignation in case it was ever needed. An accompanying letter stated: “Dave Addington – You are to present the attached document to President George W. Bush if the need ever arises. – Richard B. Cheney.”

The book highlights the disparities between POTUS and VPOTUS as well as the advantages afforded the veep (yes, there are some). Among the former: The White House residential staff numbers 100 while the vice president’s 9,150-square-foot home located at the US Naval Observatory is maintained by a crew of a dozen people.

As for the latter, it also begins at their respective homes. The White House is overstuffed and highly formal while the Naval Observatory is more casual and comfortable. And, unlike 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s not a constant tourist destination.

Brower notes George H.W. and Barbara Bush enjoyed living more at the Observatory than the White House. Barbara Bush characterized the contrast of the homes this way: “There was a big difference between opening the door at the Vice President’s house, where there wasn’t a soul around, in your bathrobe and letting the dog out at 6:00 a.m., and throwing on your warm-up suit at the White House, where the morning crew already was hard at work.”

Beyond including the requisite John Nance Garner comment on life as veep (“not worth a bucket of warm spit” though “spit” was a milder form of Garner’s preferred noun), Brower sprinkles in plenty of rueful remarks about being the nation’s No. 2 man in charge and its attendant frustrations.

Calvin Coolidge said of his time as Warren Harding’s VP, “It never interfered with my mandatory eleven hours of sleep a day.”

Joe Lieberman, Gore’s running mate in 2000, described the extensive vetting process required to be a nominee’s running mate as “kind of like having a colonoscopy without the anesthesia.”

And, upon being offered a chance in 1848 to be on the Whig ticket, US Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts remarked, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Brower’s lively account is a brisk VP primer sure to entertain political history fans.

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